"Oh Dear, Richard the Third"

"Oh Dear, Richard the Third" Hot

MattDPMattDP   November 26, 2009  
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richardBeing English, I’ve often lamented a dearth of wargames representing English history. My woe is further compounded by the fact that as a Casual Wargamer my choice is further restricted to those games which have sensible caps on complexity and play time. I was therefore delighted when Jerry Taylor announced he was designing a game based on the Wars of the Roses, and further delighted when Columbia games did me the honour of sending me a review copy. The title it seems has changed to Richard III, one of the four monarchs England enjoyed during the wars which has the unfortunate side effect of making me hear Baldrick saying ”Oh dear, Richard the Third” in a deadpan tone whenever I think about the game. But it’s the play that matters, not the name, so on with the review.

The game is based on the same basic wargame system used in Hammer of the Scots, Crusader Rex and others but has obviously been tweaked for the new setting. Nevertheless, if you’re familiar with one of those games, learning this will be a breeze. Having said that, with 8 pages of clearly written rules (one of which is a scenario), the learning curve on this is not going to be particularly steep for anyone. It’s a block game so has a unique fog-of-war aspect: the forces consist of wooden blocks which are faced toward the owning player so the opponent is never sure exactly what is where. The game is played over three campaigns. At the start of each one, both players get a hand of seven cards with different operations values and a few events for good measure. Each turn both players play a card and spend the ops: one point can muster a new unit from your pool, providing you control its deployment area, or move a group of blocks around the map. In a contested area there’s a battle: all the blocks are revealed and then strike in a fixed order. Each block has a letter, A-D which determines when they strike and a number from 1-4 which they must roll equal to or less than to hit and they get one dice per step. Damage is removed in terms of steps so blocks get weaker as they absorb hits Most of the changes from Hammer of the Scots are in the combat rules. Now, all hits must be taken in one go on the strongest enemy block. There’s also a charge rule which allows a few select blocks to pick their targets, at the cost of the target getting a free attack back if it survives. Finally the senior Royal block on each side plus the Earl of Warwick are allowed to make a treachery roll instead of an attack - they pick a block with a treachery number and roll a number of dice equal to that value (1-3) and if all the dice come up evens, it changes side. At the end of each campaign each player counts the nobles they control and the player with the most becomes King. The player who is King at the end of the third campaign is the winner.

Physical production quality is the same as all other Columbia games. You get a lot of wooden blocks, a sheet of stickers for you to attach to said blocks, a black and white paper rulebook, some dice, some flimsy cardboard cards that won’t fit in card sleeves and a thin cardboard board that won’t lie flat easily without a plexiglass cover. What differentiates Richard III from its predecessors is the quality of the art which is really very good and, as a bonus, perfectly clear and functional too. It’s amazing how much information they’ve managed to cram onto the block stickers and yet still leave them legible and easy on the eye. A small issue in my copy was that a number of the white blocks had smears of blue or red colour on them which is obviously no good if you’re trying to play up the fog of war effect because it leaves a block immediately identifiable. However a little gentle work with some fine sandpaper sorted out this problem nicely.

As a veteran of several other Columbia titles, what struck me most about this game when I started to play it was how fast it played. There is virtually no downtime and aside from a little inevitable thinking time most orders can be executed on the map quickly and easily. The only thing that slows the pace down is the combat and for various reasons there often isn’t loads and loads of combat in the game, especially at the start of a turn. Because the game resets after every campaign, bringing dead “treacherous” nobles back to life but not “rose” nobles (which have no treachery value) and royal heirs it rapidly becomes apparent that a primary aspect of the game strategy is hunting down and killing those “rose” nobles in order to permanently decrease the block count of nobles that your opponent can use during usurpation. The reset also means that initial turns are spent building up forces and maneuvering to attack. The upshot of all this is that the whole game plays incredibly fast for a title of this nature: experienced players should be able to finish a game in two hours without problem, and I can’t imagine a game stretching to three hours unless it’s a first-time learning excercise. In addition Columbia have thoughtfully provided a couple of scenarios to download for one-campaign games that take no more than 30-45 minutes to play. Truly this is a historical wargame that anyone could find the time to learn and play.

The mustering and maneuver aspect that takes up the early parts of each campaign are fascinatingly open-ended for a game of this type. There’s always a variety of tensions you’re going to come up against when trying to make your decisions: for example, newly-mustered blocks cannot move but will need to be protected if they’re in range of enemy units, since single blocks make easy pickings but at the same time you’ll want to make early musters wherever possible because if your enemy moves blocks into a territory, no musters will be possible there. You want your “rose” nobles on the board of course so that they count in your favour and can enter combat without fear of treachery, but you’re always being tugged toward leaving them out of danger because their loss can be so catastrophic. The board itself is wide and features ports for sea movement which, combined with a few nasty event cards, means units can suddenly end up in areas you didn’t entirely expect. Timing of your attacks is also vitally important: leave it too long and the enemy will have gathered his blocks in groups and be too strong. Too quick and you risk a few unlucky dice undermining your attack and leaving you on the loosing side. The game packs an awful lot to think about into a very compact framework.

And when you do eventually start to come to blows with your opponents, all hell breaks loose. Because of the manner in which blocks drop in combat effectiveness when they take hits, almost every roll of the dice in a combat is absolutely fraught with tension - a particularly lucky or unlucky roll can have pretty devestating consequences further down the line. In this game blocks can’t retreat during the first round of combat so fighting is usually a pretty bloody affair, made more so by the rules stating that all damage from one source has to be absorbed by a single target and the “heir charges” which allow senior royal heirs to target particular blocks for destruction. A few rounds of combat and you’ll discover that you don’t particularly care that fighting is restricted to later rounds of the campaign because in many cases it’s just too terrifying. And yet it’s pretty rare that you’ll feel sore because you were unlucky in combat: you might take a loss but there are usually other blocks for you to muster, other groups for you to fight with. Calculated risk-taking is a big part of the strategy here.

The other aspect of combat is of course the treachery rules. I’m in two minds about these: they can be awesomely exciting and because a royal block can either make a treachery attempt or fight they offer the player a very difficult decision. Yet at the same time they seem to be very powerful for something that comes down to the roll of a few dice and the "fight or treachery" rule looks more like a balancing mechanic than anything faintly realistic. The supply limit of 4-5 blocks per territory means that often, in a 4-on-4 fight a single treachery roll can be completely decisive. In addition of course it also creates a notable differential of two for usurpation: what one player loses the other gains. In truth, so far I haven’t actually seen the treachery mechanic backfire as badly as I thought it might: you need to be very careful with “1” value treachery nobles and you half-expect them to defect in any case and “2” and “3” value nobles rarely switch sides. But the potential is still there for it to be an annoying rather than a satisfying game factor. However in the final analysis I think we can forgive a few over-random games in a title which plays so quickly and is for the most part both thrilling and strategically satisfying.

Historically speaking I think the game generally works well so long as you’re prepared to accept a goodly number of abstractions in the name of making a more interesting and exciting play experience, which I certainly am. Columbia have a particular genius of either abstracting out historical detail into simple yet believable mechanics or of encouraging a game to run along historical lines by using existing rules. For example the north/south split that existed between support for the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions will tend to appear during the course of the game simply because it’s advantageous for players to concentrate their forces in those areas: no extra weight of rules are required. The one thing I’m not sure about is the manner in which the game handles the Earl of Warwick, the infamous “Kingmaker”. In reality the Earl was so powerful that whilst he had no hope of taking the throne himself, wielding power through either a puppet king or a grateful ally was a wholly realistic goal for him and indeed his desire for power and recognition was the leading factor in his eventual defection from the Yorkist to the Lancastrian cause. Almost certainly the best way to represent him in a game would be to have him as a potential third player, something I’d be particularly interested in seeing because there simply aren’t enough multi-player wargames around, but the designer here has settled for making it a two-player title. In addition the treachery mechanic as stands doesn’t really work for Warwick: he certainly did switch sides in search of favour and patronage and besides his “3” treachery value means he’ll make the switch only a tiny minority of games. And whilst I’m not in favour of wargames that railroad the players into mirroring the history, it seems a shame that this important event during the Wars of the Roses will so rarely come to pass in the game.

It’s almost inevitable that people are going to compare this to Hammer of the Scots so I thought I’d spend my penultimate paragraph looking at that comparison. The two chief complaints that people had about Hammer of the Scots were, it seemed, that it was sometimes over-random and had a tendency to play out similarly game after game with the Scots entrenched in the North, the English trying to root them out and all the fighting taking place over one or two key territories. The fact of the matter is that in Richard III the designer seems to have taken these concerns on board and done something about them. The two sides, though asymmetric, have a much more varied mix of combat stats than those in Hammer of the Scots and no side has to rely on one or two powerful blocks to see them win the day in the manner that the Scots player has to rely on Wallace. As a result the game feels a lot less random overall, but still allows the thrills and spills generated by the combat system to take center stage in battles. The wider English board and the fact that sea moves are now a movement option for either player, any time, means that the board position is also much more fluid and there are a lot more strategic options to explore. I also think that openness is going to translate, over time, into a game with more re-playability that its predecessor. Richard III makes better use of the fog-of-war element of the block system and although it has a less pronounced asymmetry still has difference enough between the two sides to markedly prolong it's shelf-life. Mechanically, Richard III is superior to Hammer of the Scots in almost every way. However, Mel Gibson never starred in a popular film about the Wars of the Roses. And while Richard III is the more absorbing game it takes time to appreciate and lacks the instantly addictive quality that the easy to learn, hard to master strategies of Hammer of the Scots offers to players. For those reasons I think Hammer of the Scots deserves to keep its crown as the best introductory wargame ever. That said, the two play very differently for games based on the same system and if you like one, you’ll probably like the other and find that it’s well worth owning both.

I like Richard III a lot. In spite of the fact that I’m a bit sore about the missed opportunity for a third player this game has delivered big time on Tom Dalgliesh and Jerry Taylors' skill at the difficult act of balancing diametrically opposite aspects of play. It’s strategically demanding and yet thrillingly random. It’s historically detailed and yet never imposes that history over the enjoyment of the players. In fact I’m inclined to go so far as to say it’s the best 2-player game I’ve played this year. One of the most fun things about it, that I’ve yet to mention, is the manner in which so many individual blocks in the game represent real, named historical personalities who will live and die on the game board. You get to write alternative history as you play: in my last game the Duke of Suffolk and that notorious sadist the Earl of Worcester went down fighting a desperate defence outside Norwich, the Duke of York was killed in a disastrous battle in Lancashire and Henry VI in an equally disastrous battle near Newcastle, and Edward of Lancaster was eventually crowned as Edward IV instead of the historical outcome of Edward of York claiming that name and title. Maybe it’s because I’m an Englishman but that has become an incredibly personal game for me in which I see the history of my country written and re-written and can understand, perhaps a little, how huge historical events can hinge on the smallest of random chances. And what greater praise could you find for a wargame than that?